Q&A: "In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."

"In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."

Question

On thinkersbiblestudies.com I read that "in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen 2:17) is questionable because Adam continued to live after he sinned. The writer for this site, Richard Lundborg, says that, among other things, there was a race of people before Adam and Eve? Is any of this true?

Answer

I’ve read some of Thinkers Bible Studies and see that quoting verses out of context is a very dangerous thing. It also appears to be a heretical site, teaching the biblically unaware to doubt God, his Word, and thereby their own faith (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3-6; 2 Tim. 1:13-14; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1-6, et. al.).

Genesis 2:16-17 and Stinking Thinking

Atheists and others like Lundborg like to point out what they feel is a flaw in Genesis 2:16-17. The text reads, "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die [literally, "dying you shall die"].'" They claim since Adam did not die "in the day" he sinned then the Bible is in error. Or they claim that death is not the result of sin as Adam didn’t die that very day. However, both of these assertions are false.

As related to mankind, there are various types of death referred to in the Bible: physical death — when the body dies (Gen. 5:5); spiritual death — separation from God due to sin (Rom 6:23; cf. Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22); and eternal death — permanent separation from God due to unrepentant sin (Matt. 25:32-33, 41, 46). Below we shall briefly examine the first two.

Genesis 2:16-17 and Physical Death

Variants of the phrase "dying you shall die" occur some forty-nine times in the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. Numbers 26:65 is a passage that uses the same Hebrew words and grammatical construction as in Genesis 2:17. Here God had instructed his covenant people to go into the land of Canaan and take possession of it, but they didn’t trust and obey the Lord. As a result, these unbelievers died in the wilderness over the course of approximately 40 years. What is noteworthy here is that they didn’t all die at once, rather "dying they did all die" in God’s time. So, Genesis 2:16-17 isn’t telling us that Adam and Eve had to physically die immediately. And we do know that eventually, after 930 years, Adam did physically die (Gen. 5:5).

1 Kings 2:37, 42 is also a very interesting comparison. Solomon issued an edict demanding that Shimei — who had cursed David during Absalom’s rebellion — remain within the city limits of Jerusalem. He also declared a penalty for going outside the city: "For on the day you go out and cross the brook Kidron, know for certain that you shall die. Your blood shall be on your own head" (1 Kings 2:37). So, similar to the King in the Garden of Eden (i.e. God), King Solomon issued a royal decree with an accompanying penalty of death for violating it. And similar to Adam and Eve, Shimei violated his king’s decree. King Solomon confronted Shimei in 1 Kings 2:42 much like God confronted the first couple in Genesis 3:11. Shimei stood trial before the king and was executed. In the case of Adam and Eve, on the same day they faced God, the sentence of death was carried out on a "royal sacrifice" (done by God himself), which was the sacrifice of an animal used to make the first couple’s new clothes (Gen. 3:21). It is here in Genesis 2:16-17; 3:21 that we are given a glimpse of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement that was already at work (John 1:29, 36; Rev. 13:8; cf. Rom. 5:12-19).

This said, some maintain that Genesis 2:17 contains a Hebrew idiom — as certainly as you eat of the fruit you will most certainly die. A literal 24-hour day is not actually meant; only the certainty of physical death. We see such figures of speech in other verses of the Bible as well:

Then Pharaoh said to him, "Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die" (Exodus 10:28).

For on the day you go out and cross the brook Kidron, know for certain that you shall die. Your blood shall be on your own head.(1 Kings 2:37).

As applied to Genesis 2:17, Adam’s death sentence was something for certain — it would happen if he ate of the forbidden fruit. And Adam for certain did die (Gen. 5:5).

Genesis 2:16-17 and Spiritual Death

Both Adam and Eve died on the exact day, the exact moment, they ate of the forbidden fruit (cf. Jas. 1:14-15) — they died spiritually. This was revealed when they realized they were naked and then hid from God (Gen. 3:7-8). In their game of hide-and-seek in the garden, Adam and Eve demonstrated that they were estranged from God. It was as Isaiah later writes, "but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear" (Isa. 59:2; cf. Eph. 2:1, 12, 19; 4:18; Col. 1:21). Adam and Eve died spiritually "in the day" that they sinned. However, as noted above, with the first animal sacrifice God also graced them with eternal life (Gen. 3:21).

The apostle Paul observes spiritual death as present in the Garden as well (1 Cor. 15:22). He emphasizes this fact in his "one man" theology in Romans 5:12-21. He writes that sin entered the world because of "one man" (Rom. 5:12). He reveals to us that individual sins aren’t the only thing in view when discussing sin; there is also the original sin of "one man". And he reminds us that sin is not imputed where there is no law (Rom. 5:13). Before the Law of Moses was ever instituted, sin existed and people died. Paul explains that death reigned even over those whose sin was not like Adam (Rom. 5:14). Though babies don’t transgress the law as we do, they still die because of original sin. Thus, Paul is emphasizing the doctrine of original sin. Six times Paul emphasizes that the entire human race was in sin because of the "one man":

Rom. 5:15: For if many died through one man's trespass

Rom. 5:16: And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin

Rom. 5:17: For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man

Rom. 5:18: Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men

Rom. 5:19: For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners

So, we all die not only because of our individual sin, but also through the "one man’s" sin. All of us are made sinners because of Adam’s one sin. Adam is the covenant or federal head of the human race. "In him" all of us sinned. And this federal headship is important. Without it none could be saved because salvation is only through the "one man" Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12-21; cf. 1 Cor. 15:21-22). Only if we are in the one man, Jesus Christ, do we have eternal life. [1]

A Race Before Adam?

As for a race of humans existing before Adam, the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:22, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." This shows that all mankind died in Adam (cf. Rom. 5:12-21). Logically, it also reveals no one could have existed prior to Adam, as "all mankind" couldn’t have died "in Adam." To have died in Adam they would have had to have been in his loins (cf. Heb. 7:10) and so discounts other races. Adam’s wife Eve isn’t called the mother of some living, but rather the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20). Adam was the very first human being, the father of all races. As Luke writes, "And he made from one man [Adam] every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place" (Acts 17:26). So, either Paul, Luke, and the Holy Spirit are liars, or Thinkers Bible Studies is wrong.

Footnote

[1] The expression "in Christ" (including such phrases as, "in the Lord," and "in him", etc.) occurs over 160 times in the letters of Paul alone. Being "in Christ" is Paul’s terminology for union with Christ. We are organically united to Christ. A distinctive mark of the followers of Christ is their personal relationship with him.

A believer is "in Christ" from many perspectives. To name a few, we (1) are crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6); (2) are buried with him (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12); (3) are raised with him (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1); (4) are made alive in him (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13); (5) suffer with him (Rom. 8:17); (6) are glorified with him (Rom. 8:17, 30); (7) will inherit with him (Rom. 8:17); (8) will live with him (Rom. 6:8); and (9) will reign with him (2 Tim. 2:12).

While Paul does speak of individuals as being "in Christ" (Rom. 8:1; Phil. 1:1; Eph. 3:12; Col. 1:2, et. al.) he also speaks of whole churches as being "in him" as well (Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:1). "In Christ" means there should be brotherly unity (Eph. 6:23; 1 Thess. 4:9-10), one head (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:17) and one goal of Christ’s church, his one body.

Related Topics

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How are original sin and imputed sin different?
Peter Enns and Original Sin
Why wasn't the Virgin Mary's sin passed on to Jesus?
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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).